[Featured images – show variety of school structures, including Plato’s academy peripatetic garden, little red schoolhouse, modern middle and high school complexes] To see the famous ‘students’ Raffaello da Urbino put in his famous painting, see this Wikipedia page on the School of Athens. The other pictures show the iconic 19th Century “Little Red School House”, Chicago’s Latin School, and Chicago.]
Part I – Some History of Education in the West
We’ve all heard “It pays to learn”. This suggests the more education someone has, the more money she’ll make. Beyond compulsory high school, this is a bad assumption, for many reasons. For example, it matters what she learns. (Compare quilt making to, say, materials science.) Also, it matters how much she pays for learning, and to whom. Other qualifiers involve who she is – e.g., her interests, her aptitudes and skills, her native language, her ethinicity and color, where she was raised, what schools she attended, how her parents and friends feel about learning. There are institutional policies too, regarding admission standards, and eligibility for loans, as well as laws about interest rates, default, restructuring, and forgivenness, which affect the outcome. Obviously good advice is critical here. Does she have a trustworthy adviser? There’s no shortage of people who claim expertise in such issues – for a fee, of course.
70 years of education experience, as a student, teacher, researcher and critical thinker, convince me that present trends are mostly undesirable, at all levels, private and public, especially since the Seventies, as money interests have dominated the culture.
Financialization increasingly is hurting schools, as it is hurting all the important aspects of our once promising experiment in “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, honored in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Education, and other institutions which historically reminded citizens that money is not the only value – e.g., arts, journalism, elected representation and even religion – have generally been taken over by financial interests. This is well described in Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class.
Having retired, and started to critique and write about these changes, I quickly realized the topic is far too big, vague and variable, and the relevant information too full of error, subjectivity, and deception to make safe general conclusions. But I can speak safely about some demographic populations, in some areas, under some forms of governmental oversight, and point out trends. A summary of American public education as a whole is too much to expect. (A recent Atlantic article says “generalization doesn’t work” for America’s Schools, and gives good reasons why.) Still I want to keep trying to understand such a fundamental social issue at the heart of our society, and hope a few people are moved to think more seriously about it, and can begin to correct what seems wrong.
Clear definition of terminology is basic for anyone trying to understand an important subject rationally – i.e. without deception or sales pitches. Ambiguity is the death of good reasoning, and a common tool of deceivers. Unfortunately, in the case of ‘American education’, terms are really hard to define. What is America? What is education? Is it the same as learning? Does it require two people – a teacher and student – one acting and the other receiving? Must education be intentional? Can things educate or be educated? (Think of natural forces, diseases, storms, and related animal behavior.) Is AI a kind of education? Who (or what) is the educator (or the educated) of all the ‘big data’ and the AI systems that depend on it?
Do ‘brains’, ‘cleverness’, ‘now-how’ and ‘book learning’ count as education? Where does ‘understanding’ come in? One of my earliest educators – Winnie the Pooh – wondered:
“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
Does an educated person understand what she knows? If she understands, is she an authority, or only accepting what authorities claim? Ultimately, is knowledge any more than opinion? Does it entail finding truth? Must an educated person be aware of finding truth? Must she know that she knows? How? Does she have a feeling about it – a feeling of certainty? Is “I’m sure” proof of knowledge? I think not. In my view, quite the contrary; real knowledge demands being unsure. Uncertainty – epecially self-doubt – can motivate a genuine desire for knowledge, and generate questions. However, that’s only my belief. I also believe real knowledge exists, and it depends on truth. But these beliefs are unproveable, as are opposing views, in this issue of the present state of education, and its place in the search for knowledge.
Plato – my go-to philosopher for deep thinking – defined knowledge as “justified true belief”. This means it is a ‘belief’, and as such it exists in someone’s mind. But for her belief to be a ‘true belief’, it must describe reality, which is independent of her belief. Finally, her true belief must be ‘justified’ objectively. It can’t be a lucky guess, nor just her opinion, even if the same opinion is held by any number of other ‘true believers’. This view of knowledge from ancient Greece is still held by most serious thinkers, whose numbers seem to be diminishing – perhaps they’re even an endangered species. Some academics philosophers do give arguments against justified true belief , based on the rules of formal, symbolic logic. I think their abstract reasoning is specious, however, and shows how easily philosophers can go off track to prove their point. Ego is a common stumbling block for ‘academics’. I’m sure of that!
Is schooling needed for one to be educated? The answer is judged differently by individuals, families and rulers. For instance, England passed various school acts between 1870 (the Forster Act) and the latest legislation in 2016. They began with mandating school attendance to age 13, and raised it by steps to age 16, while restructuring levels, programs, funding and enforcement methods. All these proposals and changes brought oppposition, as discussed in this politics.co article from the UK, which includes this summary:
“However, many remained hostile to the idea of educating the working class, fearing it could de-stabilise the class system and foment dissent. Others warned of the indoctrination risk of mass education. The Act also allowed parents to withdraw their children from religious education, potentially undermining the role of the Church.”
“Many families themselves objected to compulsory education, arguing they needed children to earn a wage. Each subsequent increase to the school leaving age was therefore met with fresh criticism as families “lost” another economically active member for a year or more. Unsurprisingly the 1880 Act also established attendance officers to enforce attendance and parents could be fined for keeping their children out of school.”
Unlike Britain and other European nations, the U.S. Constitution made no laws about education, thus leaving state and local entities to determine their own requirements. For example, Massachusetts made elementary education compulsory in 1647 when it was still a British colony. But not until 1918 did all states have compulsory schooling for all children. Today, half the states have extended mandatory attendance to age 16, and half to age 18. To repeat, education has always be a fractious topic, with many perspectives.
19th century migrants to America from Europe often brought some distrust of the authoritarian intellectual class they left in the old country. You’ll still hear “He may be smart in school, but …” Many people don’t believe book learning beats the ‘know how’ of practical experience. I think both are needed. So did Confucius: “The Master said: If you study but don’t reflect you’ll be lost. If you reflect but don’t study you’ll get into trouble.“ [Confucius Analects 2.15, Robert Eno transl (2015) Indiana U.]
American attitudes towards education also reflect regional differences, influenced by the motives of colonial settlers to the ‘new world’ from various lands in the ‘old country’. For example, Spain’s holdings started with Columbus’ reports of finding gold in Caribbean islands (that he thought were the East Indies). That search quickly expanded into South America, yielding gold, silver and other metals for Spain. Portugal joined in, colonizing what is now Brazil, for the same motives and with the same sad consequences for native peoples and imported slaves.
110 years after Columbus, English settlers landed in Jamestown, Virginia, expecting to find easy gold too, but quickly learned that survival should be their first task. British emigrants to New England and Canada were more lucky. Expecting to join the Jamestown settlement (which they did not know had failed), they went off course and landed on a peninsula (present Cape Cod) and settled at what they called Plymouth Rock, named for the Plymouth Company which arranged the venture.
Taking the example of 16th century Portuguese plantations on islands off West Africa, and Spanish plantations in the southern Caribbean, French investors started sugar plantations in other Caribbean areas close to New Orleans. They added fur trade in Canada – shipped down the Mississippi – and sought people to work in all their projects. These were either indigenous people, slaves, or immigrant indentured free Europeans, depending on the climate and work conditions of each area. In any case, French lands west of the Mississippi were not very successful for either royal or business owners. After changing hands from France to Spain to France again, they were sold to the USA by Napoleon – in the famous 1803 deal we call the Louisiana Purchase.
The goals of converting natives to Christianity, and of freedom of religious expression by emigrants from Europe (obviously inconsistent) added further to differences in regional demographics, which continue to influence attitudes and policies about the value or need for education. Wikipedia, “European colonization of the Americas” shows this variety of purposes.
Putting aside these regional differences of motivation, and cultural attitudes, all the communities in the New World were aware that some sort of training, education or schooling was important for their citizens at every level, for the success of the group. That was a view carried with them from their European history. (Even slaves had to be trained, for their labor to be efficient.)
In Europe, schools have a very old history – mostly by and for persons controlling society, like nobles, religious leaders, or wealthy business people, and their families. But they often invited lower class persons who showed promise, and were needed (e.g. to copy books, keep records, design buildings, cure the sick, make wine, and entertain.) We might call these ‘trade schools’ or ‘service industries’ today – terms that carry a negative connotation. But one school in Athens of 500 BCE was founded to help all its ‘students’ to gain the most important knowledge every human should seek, regardless of birth or class circumstances. A shadow of its founding spirit has remained to inspire a few. Here’s a flashback to Ancient Greece, by a famous Italian living 2000 years later.
The Renaissance arist Raphael did the piece shown here in the early 1500s. It’s a grand conception of that early school – certainly not anything like the Athenian institution that Plato founded. Raphael’s painting – called the School of Athens – shows Plato and his pupil Aristotle (framed against the sky by a Roman arch – certainly not the style of any Greek building!). The famous persons Raphael placed there are his interpretion. But Plato did indeed have a school called the Academy (Ἀκαδημία).
It may seem strange that the word ‘school’ comes from Greek skholē, which means “leisure”. For most of us, school and leisure are very distinct. But in that society, school was what a person with leisure time wanted, when and if the demands and obligations of daily life allowed. In Plato’s Athens, usually only those of the upper class had such leisure. An ideal scholar sought self-knowledge, in order to become a true aristocrat, in character – not in social status – which meant to become a true human. (‘Aristos’ άριστος means ‘worthy’ or ‘noble’.) Such a goal demands disciplined thought, and thoughtful discipline.
Plato’s mentor Socrates was not a ‘nobleman’ – his father was a stone-cutter. His early career was that of infantry soldier (hoplite) like most of his fellow citizens. As such he was subject to being called to serve, in principle from age 18 to 60! And he did serve with honor in several campaigns. He became a life member of the Assembly (Ekklesia) at age 36, but spent most of his time engaging people in his quest for wisdom, and to inspire others to do likewise. So although he wasn’t in the noble class, his character was certainly noble. His lifestyle and thinking were uncommon, but respected by most.
Socrates’ guiding educational principle was “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He refused to take pay from his ‘students’, with good reason. First, he denied being a teacher, because professional teachers (whom he called “Sophists”) eagerly took pay for what they taught – primarily how to win arguments, and so to gain fame and influence. Secondly, knowledge is available to anyone who seeks it; it’s not a teacher’s possession to give, let alone sell, to a student. And thirdly, if it’s the teacher’s motive, money corrupts the process. I would add a fourth reason – that no one can teach another, in the sense of causing her know something; one can only try to motivate her to want to know – a skill that’s more art than science.
The philosophical study of knowledge (called “epistemology” by the Greeks who started it) began with an assumption that knowledge involves truth. More importantly, truth must exist, not as a subjective fantasy of someone’s imagination, but as a reality independent of any person. It can be known – if at all – only by devotion, long study and self control. This assumption may appear old fashioned, especially in today’s skeptical culture. It isn’t proveable. (It would be fun to show why, but time doesn’t allow.) Yet the whole edifice of education rests on it.
All of this underscores by contrast the point I want this post to make – i.e., our culture today seems to have replaced the search for knowledge and its application to a genuinely good life with the search for money. Those with the greatest financial interest – the so-called ‘One-Percent’ – have preached and encouraged this value, and the money debt that goes with it, so that the people at the top of the debt pyramid have become incredibly rich, while the real economy is in decline. Knowledge today is a commodity, controlled by the debt industry, and students are “a debtor class” to serve it, as Michael Hudson shows.
Relatedly, knowledge as a search for, and love of wisdom (philosophy) has given way to a search for, and love of wealth and power. Regard for truth – vital in the search for wisdom – is replaced by opacity, deception, and lies whenever the truth might harm the financial outcome (which is most of the time). Indeed, it’s increasingly common to hear people deny that truth is anything real – only an idealistic dream.
Truth does in fact belong to the realm of ideas. But that is the realm of reality, not illusion, where our real self – i.e. our inner mind – should and can operate, if we’re not totally distracted by worldly issues and desires. As Plato would say, truth is in the realm of “things thought”, not “things seen”. Although truth is mental, it isn’t ‘just a figment of your imagination’. No, ideas can be true, but only if and when they conform to reality. Reality itself is neither true nor false; it is what it is. If one believes there are different levels of reality – as I do – there must be levels of knowledge of it. For some, the highest level – ultimate reality – isn’t knowable by ordinary methods of knowing. Maybe it’s beyond knowing altogether. Or perhaps it can be known little by little, with limitless room for applying it to self-improvement and service to others – an eternal process of growth, modesty, gratitude and happiness – called wisdom.
The saying “Know thyself” – γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seauton) – was inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (first built before 600 BCE), but it has parallels in much earlier inscriptions at the Luxor Temple of upper Egypt (modern Thebes), built ca. 1400 B.C.E. Needless to say, our present culture has little so-called leisure for this life-long task. The pace of choosing, speaking and acting is fast, impatient, even frantic. ‘Just do it! Now!‘
In Part II of “Education Pays”, I’ll discuss and illustrate specific ways in which financialization has affected education, students, communities and the economy negatively, and has made it harder than ever for democracy to function, or for ordinary citizens to live fulfilling lives.